Richard Cohen in Context

Some people are defending his abysmal column. Their argument is not very good.

There are a few people defending Richard Cohen's abysmal column today as though it were the victim of a giant reading-comprehension fail. I think this piece by J. Bryan Lowder offers the gist of the argument:

But before I get to that, though, let’s break down what Cohen actually wrote. The offending paragraph is embedded in a longer segment about the mindless, reactionary social conservatism of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats and how nasty their insurgence was for a more moderate Democratic Party back in the 1948 election. Cohen calls the similarities to contemporary tea-partying Iowans “ominous,” and warily eyes the trenchant, anti-modern (and politically costly) attitude that can emerge when a group of people perceive their “way of life under attack and they [fear] its loss.” Now, it’s true that he doesn’t condemn this faction as forcefully as he might, but my takeaway from the piece as a whole was that Cohen is none too pleased with what their ascendancy bodes for mainstream conservatism.

Of course, a few highly ambiguous phrases (that probably should have been edited out) in the “gag” sentence make this reading harder, but let’s try. “Conventional” is the most unfortunate word choice, with its connotations of “common sense,” “widely shared,” or “unremarkable”; as many critics have already pointed out, studies show that disapproval of miscegenation is none of those things today. But recall that Cohen has been describing a limited, if still very much extant, mindset that (he at least wants us to believe) is not his own; in that worldview, dislike of interracial marriage is very much conventional, as is dislike of former lesbians—these are literally the conventions of that social group.

This is not a very good defense. I read the entire column. I saw the preceding grafs where Cohen offers a rough history of the Dixiecrats and segregationists wing of America. And then I read this:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

The problem here isn't that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn't actually racist, but "conventional" or "culturally conservative." Obstructing the right of black humans and white humans to form families is a central feature of American racism. If retching at the thought of that right being exercised isn't racism, then there is no racism. 

Context can not improve this. "Context" is not a safe word that makes all your other horse-shit statements disappear. And horse-shit is the context in which Richard Cohen has, for all these years, wallowed. It is horse-shit to claim that store owners are right to discriminate against black males. It is horse-shit to claim Trayvon Martin was wearing the uniform of criminals. It is horse-shit to subject your young female co-workers to "a hostile work environment." It is horse-shit to expend precious newsprint lamenting the days when slovenly old dudes had their pick of 20-year-old women. It is horse-shit to defend a rapist on the run because you like The PianistAnd it is horse-shit for Katharine Weymouth, the Post's publisher, to praise a column with the kind of factual error that would embarrass a j-school student.

Richard Cohen's unfortunate career is the proper context to understand his column today and the wide outrage that's greeted it. We are being told that Cohen finds it "hurtful" to be called racist. I am sorry that people on the Internet have hurt Richard Cohen's feelings. I find it "hurtful" that Cohen endorses the police profiling my son. I find it eternally "hurtful" that the police, following that same logic, killed one of my friends. I find it hurtful to tell my students that, even in this modern age, vending horse-shit is still an esteemed and lucrative profession.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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